Robert Meckel Papers Contribute Rich Trove of Mexican American–Themed Journalism to Benson
The Benson Latin American Collection has received the papers of Robert Meckel, whose 25-year career in newspaper journalism included many assignments on the Texas–Mexico border as well as in Mexico itself. An alumnus of The University of Texas at Austin, Meckel was hired by his alma mater in 1995 to work in the Office of Public Affairs, later known as University Communications. He took leave from the university in the spring of 2015 after having been diagnosed with cancer a few years earlier.
Meckel’s archives are a rich and varied collection of articles, photographs, and memorabilia from a man who had a passion not only for journalism, but also for justice, and for exposing and exploring the realities of the border and of Mexican Americans’ role in their communities.
A native of Mission, Texas, Meckel is the son of a first-generation Texan mother whose parents migrated from Ciudad Mier, Tamaulipas, Mexico, and a father of German ancestry. He discovered his interest in writing and journalism during high school, and went on to study first at Pan American College in Edinburg, Texas, and then to The University of Texas at Austin, where he earned a journalism degree.
Meckel’s career as a journalist included early photojournalism assignments and coverage of the burgeoning civil rights movement in South Texas, including farmworkers’ strikes and the foundation of the Mexican American Youth Organization (MAYO) in the Rio Grande Valley. His work at the Corsicana Daily Sun in the early 1970s led to revelations about local government secrecy and encouraged increased openness and transparency in local government. This experience, as well as previous stints writing features and reporting on federal bankruptcy court and the police beat, led to his hiring by the Houston Post, where he covered instances of police brutality against minorities and resulting protests.
As one of the few Mexican Americans on the Post’s news staff, Meckel says he was frequently assigned to cover immigration issues and crisis/disaster events along the Texas–Mexico border, as well as in Mexico. Stories included farmworkers who were sprayed with pesticides while working in the fields; the impoverished colonias of the Rio Grande Valley; the arrival of increased crime and corruption in Texas as drug traffickers moved their operations to the Lone Star State from Florida; and a bloody dispute between the PRI and PAN parties in northern Mexico in December 1984.
In His Own Words
Meckel says he was often one of the only Latino journalists on the news staff, and that although his assignments ranged from law enforcement and courthouse beats to coverage of environmental and political news, “stories having anything having to do with Hispanics, especially when they involved interviews with Spanish-speaking people, were frequently assigned to me. My intent, as a journalist, was always to inform the reading public about what they would have heard and seen if they’d had the opportunity to be present at the event I covered, and to do this in as honest and objective a manner as possible.”
One such story from the late 1960s involved a citizens’ march around the Hidalgo County courthouse in Edinburg and its aftermath, a series of events that tested the reporter’s objectivity. According to Meckel, the protesters that day included “some students from nearby Pan American College who recently had organized a MAYO chapter for the Rio Grande Valley area. They were urging local Hispanic farmworkers to go on strike to protest low wages and what they described as intolerable working conditions in the fields. The idea of Hispanics in the Rio Grande Valley, especially those on the lowest economic level, going on strike was a frightening concept, even to other Hispanics who feared retaliation from the power brokers.”
The Texas Rangers were brought in to deal with the peaceful protesters. Meckel himself, observing with camera and notepad in hand, was threatened with arrest if he stepped on the grass instead of the sidewalk. Despite the tense atmosphere, the news article by Meckel and fellow reporter Maricella Millan was a balanced report.
“County Judge Milton D. Richardson was frustrated with his inability to legally force the marchers to stop their peaceful protest outside the courthouse. After several hours of watching the marchers from inside the building, he decided to invite them into his county commissioners courtroom—where he had legal jurisdiction—ostensibly to discuss their grievances.”
The invitation, however, appeared to have been something of an ambush: upon questioning from the judge, a young man identified himself as the group’s spokesman. When asked his name, the youth responded, “My name is not what is important. What is important is that our demands be answered.” This was enough for Judge Richardson to order the immediate arrest of 17-year-old Jesús González Ramírez of San Juan, Texas, for contempt of court. “The protesters held a vigil outside the jailhouse gates and cheered the young man’s release the following day,” says Meckel.
A Varied Archive That Emphasizes Stories of Mexicans and Mexican Americans
Meckel’s archive contains many other stories that document the triumphs and the suffering of Mexicans, Mexican Americans, and Spanish-speaking immigrants in Texas. He records the treatment of immigrants from the standpoint of immigration officials and the immigrants themselves, and says his collected clips “include articles describing how immigrants were victimized, often by local Hispanics, to the point that in Houston the police department established a special ‘Chicano Squad’ of Hispanic detectives to deal with crimes which undocumented immigrants had been afraid to report for fear of being deported.”
According to Meckel, significant clips of assignments in Mexico include “coverage of a Pemex gas explosion that destroyed a tiny village and killed hundreds of people near Mexico City; tension in Piedras Negras, Coahuila, following a riot and burning of the municipal building in a power struggle between PRI and PAN candidates; migration of the Africanized bee through southern Mexico and effects on the Mexican bee industry; and interviews with leaders of a polygamous community at Ciudad LeBaron in Coahuila, Mexico, following assassinations of four people in Texas by members of a rival religious cult.”
Meckel recalls that one of his most cherished assignments was an interview with beloved Mexican entertainer Mario Moreno, aka Cantinflas, whose movies he had seen in the Spanish-language movie theaters of Mission as a child. United Farm Workers Union leader César Chávez was among other notable interview subjects.
The value of Meckel’s archive to the Benson Latin American Collection is noted by Margo Gutiérrez, U.S. Latina/o Studies librarian: “Through Rob Meckel’s reporting, particularly his coverage of Mexican American communities in the Lower Rio Grande Valley and Houston, we learn of little-known acts of heroism, activism, and civic participation. Rob’s archive will immensely aid researchers investigating Latino issues in said regions in the State of Texas.”
Meckel reflects on the thought that went into determining the best home for his papers: “Like many other journalists, I have kept copies of my news articles with the thought in mind of someday writing a novel or two, or perhaps a short biography for members of my family. That may or may not happen. Meanwhile, I have decided that the best place for most of my news clips and photographs published in various newspapers over the years is the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection, where hopefully some of the materials can be of value to students and other researchers in the future.” Meckel has donated additional documents and photos not related to Hispanics/Latin America from both his newspaper career and his role afterward as director of public affairs for The University of Texas at Austin to the university’s Dolph Briscoe Center for American History.
One thing that all of Robert Meckel’s colleagues seem to share is a deep affection for him. Longtime co-worker Gary Susswein, director of Media Relations at UT Austin, remarks on how valued and beloved Meckel is at UT: “Whether he was helping his alma mater, The University of Texas, tells its story to the world or chasing down a hot journalistic tip, Rob demonstrated more passion and commitment in his work than anyone else I’ve known. His archives help us understand the cultural, political, and demographic changes that Texas has gone through over the past few decades—and help us appreciate Rob’s commitment to making his corner of the world a more just place. He’s one of the good guys and his papers show that.”
For more information, contact: Susanna Sharpe, 512-232-2403 or email@example.com.